If you’re using writing prompts to help fire up the creative synapses, they are likely doing more harm than good, especially if you don’t understand why.
Confession: I hate prompts, if you haven’t already guessed. I despise everything about them.
And because I google the term for research, the gods of algorithm think I must like them a whole lot because suddenly they appear in all my feeds, and not being all that tech savvy I have no idea how to cull them. Seeing them makes my teeth hurt.
Prompts make me want to use the F word. Normally I reserve the F word for unique situations prompting my raging, blood-coloured wrath. And now, prompts.
There. I said it. (Please don’t think less of me).
I’ve increasingly become of the mind that writers must be zealously protective of their own voice, and defiant about outside influence to the point of phobia.
For that reason, prompts are like one of those amoebic brain diseases you get when you’re minding your own business enjoying your tropical vacation. Then – BAM! – half your brain is gone and suddenly you can’t do your own taxes anymore.
It changes who you are.
Prompts come from someone else’s mental space, someone else’s story, someone else’s experiential and perceptual scaffolding.
Someone else’s voice.
As soon as you start answering to a prompt, no matter how benign it might be, you’re moving away from your own voice and individuality, your own originality, your own story, your own possibilities.
Next thing you know you’re Star Trek‘s USS Voyager lost in the Delta Quadrant and, like the hapless Federation vessel, while it took nothing to get pushed tens of thousands of light years from home it will require a potential lifetime, a series of improbable misadventures, luck, and a major con job perpetrated by Future Old You against the Borg Queen just to get back to where you started, and if some unsuspecting redshirt ensign has to die along the way, it’s going to be you.
Writing is not like a parade where some clown broadcasts fistfuls of candy while we toddle around like drooling idiots hoping to get more than the next kid.
We’re bloodhounds on a scent trail. That scent trail represents the stories that are in us to tell. Prompts act like some perp planting false scents to take us off the trail so we never find our mark.
If you’re unable to find anything to write about unless someone prompts you, you need to ask yourself if this is the right road for you. Any teacher who thinks prompts are actually helping (because any writing is good writing, right?) is probably not very knowledgeable about issues around Voice and originality.
Writers should be following our own instincts, our own storylines. Everything that exists to pour into a story should well up from within our own internal resources and personal inspirations. It’s the only hope we have to earn Voice, and thus our uniqueness and originality.
Try picturing Graham Greene responding to this: Tell the story of Hallowe’en from the perspective of a piece of candy. (Thanks, writingprompts.tumblr.com).
Having said that, if you must use them here’s my take on how to avoid allowing them to become developmental poison to you as a writer as well as your projects.
Never use anything but a neutral, non-intrusive prompt. If you have a teacher trying to strong-arm you into anything but, refuse.
Don’t do it.
A neutral prompt is one that introduces minimal outside influence or undesirable voice, ideas, style, or tone into the writer’s work. These would mostly be one word prompts, and are so nondescript they can be easily inserted into any story idea.
Even that seemingly innocent prompt could take you away from the story that’s waiting inside you to be told anyway. That prompt could end up being a creative McGuffin, a false lead that takes you on the wrong scent trail, the wrong conclusions.
That’s not even the scariest part. Most of the time there’s a prompt list made available as though giving you an option among many is the good part.
- Outside the Window
- The Unrequited love poem
- The Vessel
- Eye Contact
- The Rocket-ship
(courtesy of thinkwritten.com)
That. That right there is a narrative brainworm. All those specific words – together – came from someone else’s subconscious core, biases, and perceptions. Those words have a deeply subconscious meaning to the prompt creator, not you. They will never be about you or your own originality and Voice.
Prompts are always about the prompt creator. As a result your mental space has just been subconsciously hijacked by someone else. Whatever your story is, this annoyance is now in your way whether you like it or not, whether you’re conscious of it or not.
Say you’re writing about your expedition into the Amazon in search of your grandparents’ story after they died of gullibility in the great mythic rubber fields of Fordlandia. But say you’re all bunged up creatively and you enroll in some writing class hoping to git ‘er done.
So you sit down eagerly rubbing your hands together awaiting instruction. Teacher says, “I want five hundred words on the writing prompt he suffered from personal anarchy. Go.“ (taken directly from @writingprompt on Twitter).
Oh, I’d go all right. Straight out the door.
I mean, seriously, people?
(Serenity now, serenity now.)
That’s not just an intrusive prompt, it’s patently awful. It’s highly suggestive of someone else’s (very questionable) voice, thinking, ideas, and tone.
No prompt should ever take you away from the possibility of telling your story your way. As soon as you let someone else’s voice dictate anything in your work, you’re doomed.
And what if it is a simple prompt like bread? What if it starts you thinking about food symbolism, and you go off on this tangent about the body of Christ and breaking bread with someone?
What effect does that have if a circle metaphor would have worked far better to support your story and characters?
Deep down, those are very different symbols with different allusions. Getting it wrong could throw the context of your entire story off kilter. Readers have a gut instinct for wrongness even if they can’t pinpoint its sources.
It’s so easy to lose your voice, and so very, very hard to regain it.
If you need inspiration, trust your own gut and your own developing Voice. Just look around your world, what matters to you. Use anything that speaks to you when you’re stuck. It’s that speaking part that’s coming from the core of who you are that matters most, and it will lead you on your own journey.
Because then, what you’re writing about – whatever it is – has already begun taking you to the next part of your journey, and because you’re bringing that speaking part along with you, it will add itself as a vital part of the whole, assuring that not a single step in your personal journey as a writer has been wasted.
Do that, and the story inside you will begin to emerge right alongside your authentic Voice.